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Of all the whirlwind of recent changes and transformations in the workplace, none are quirkier (or sappier) that the trend of taking dogs to work.

Large workplaces, like Apple, Google, Amazon, Etsy and Alberta’s ATB Financial, and an increasing roster of smaller, usually more intimate workplaces, like Calgary’s Global Power Technologies (GPT) and others, have formal or informal workplace policies that welcome mostly dogs, but sometimes cats, to the office.

Although the option has been around for more than five years, some companies trace the trend back to pandemic and post-pandemic times, as a way of adding a relaxed, friendly and cozy feel to the workplace. Many business leaders and HR types also credit bring-your-pet to work as a stress-reducing, office mood and productivity booster as well as a potent staff recruitment and retention tool. While some employment lawyers, HR consultants and even veterinarians offer cautions.

Of course, there are many working environments where allowing dogs is inappropriate, risky and impossible. The presence of vehicles, machinery and other health and safety risks. So the trend is  mainly confined to offices.

Countless recent studies show that pets in the workplace do have, a mostly positive and sometimes negative, impact on work atmosphere and staff moods. Pets at work can make employees happier, increase productivity, team morale. It even boosts employee retention, by making the work environment a more welcoming and relaxed place, less likely to have people wanting to leave.

Research shows that bringing pets to work can help decrease office stress, increase morale, increase communication and socialization and improve relationships. Most (not all) people like dogs, and dogs in the workplace can act as an icebreaker, encouraging more interaction among employees and enhancing teamwork.

“Much feedback about businesses which allow staff to bring their dog to work suggest that it can actually increase not just employee satisfaction, but engagement as well,” notes the positive and upbeat   Christian Cook, professor and academic director at the Academic Development Centre of Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

“Some employers permit pets, some welcome them, and some even have informal ‘dog jobs’ or create ‘canine ambassador’ kinds of roles to formally welcome the pet.  And there’s the important advantage of the social component. Small talk is simply better with a pet! Also, employees can bond around the care and connection with pets in the workplace, and it can create or extend the camaraderie in a work setting and make for a more social and informal atmosphere.”

Dr. Jocelyn Forseille, assistant registrar with the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says “Dogs at work have been shown to have a positive influence on people’s wellbeing. It can lend a relaxing influence with positive affects on a work team, and in work many situations, both staff and clients coming into the business are positively affected.”

Dogs at work is a proportionally trickier and tougher call in larger offices, where management is cautious about the basic fact that large volumes of staff can mean potential distractions, disruptions and chaos with many dogs and exponentially many random situations. For obvious and practical reasons, dogs at work are easier to manage in smaller offices.

“We welcomed our first dog as a positive culture builder as a trial office activity around 2018,” explains Laura Kennedy, president/co-owner at Calgary’s Global Power Technologies (GPT), industry-respected as a world leader in the design, manufacture and distribution of Hybrid-compatible Thermoelectric Generators. “In the Calgary office, we now have about 30 people, with two dogs that are present for a few days a week.

“For sure there is more interaction and casual conversation definitely contributes to positive mood, morale and culture. No doubt about it. Most of our staff seem to enjoy their company, and they become the new ‘water cooler’ chat area, wherever they are.

“It would be hard to say they add to productivity, but they do provide a brief distraction from the normal work activities, and they definitely provide some happy discussion topics and help build a positive and light-hearted office environment. If you’re having a tough day, a visit with a dog for belly rubs sometimes helps to blow some steam and get back into a better frame of mind.”

Management, HR types and even veterinarians admit that despite the warm ’n’ fuzzy positives of bringing a dog to work, there are cautionary negatives and downsides.

Some documented disadvantages of a dog-friendly office are risks and issues for co-workers with allergies or phobias. Studies suggest that as many as 3 in 10 people are allergic to animals with fur, including dogs. Others may simply be uncomfortable around dogs.

And distractions and disruption. Dogs barking, whining and snoring in the middle of the office can be very annoying, distracting and disruptive.

Vets and experienced HR departments explain that for even the most cute, adorable and well-behaved dog, most office settings have far too many purses, backpacks and garbage cans to resist sniffing or worse.

“Let’s face it,” the AVMA’s Dr. Forseille says, “it can be distracting for the owner, as well as the other office staff, when the dog has to be taken outside a ‘bio break’ or a walk when necessary, as well as the possibility of allergies, phobias and dog dislikes from co-workers.”

Similar to how most people don’t like every single person they meet, some dogs may not get along with certain dogs. A dogfight at work can be disruptive and dangerous, and harm relationships between co-workers, clients or customers.

Surveys from some dog-friendly offices shows that some employers designate separate work areas, adopt leash rules restricting dogs from roaming the office, or limiting the days that animals may come to work. There are also prohibitions against animals in communal spaces such as lunch and break rooms, restrooms and conference rooms.

Experts underscore some other potential problems to consider when setting formal or informal dogs in the workplace policies and procedures.

One notoriously touchy topic is liability and responsibilities. Aside from the obvious cleaning-up after an accident, there are issues about bites or scratches. Some employees may have cynophobia – a fear of dogs, which can also create an unsafe work environment. They can  become a health and safety workplace liability.

GPT’s Laura Kennedy agrees that, “A common downside is the odd accident (sorry Brian about your shoe) and barking. We try to keep it to a minimum, but dogs can both get overly excited from time to time, and barking or crazy behaviour can be disruptive. There is also a risk that it may feel unfair that we can’t, or don’t, welcome all dogs all the time.”

While particularly smaller, more intimate offices tend to keep things informal and undocumented, “With or without a formally worded policy, if a business allows pets at work, they absolutely would be best served by having a policy and procedures to help employees understand what is expected,” Cook points out.

When it comes to dogs at work, love it or not so much, she has the ultimate workplace cautionary bottom line: “For dog-friendly office programs to work, it must be stated, understood and agreed that employees are responsible for their pets at work.”

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